You never know where life will take you. Take, for example, Spc. Robert Barnes, 1st Battalion (Airborne), 509th Infantry Regiment — Geronimo — who is a shining example of winding up where you least expect.
In 2006 he had a successful career as an English teacher in Spain working for the Spanish Ministry of Education.
“Anytime you get to visit a foreign country, you learn about the culture, food, entertainment and politics," he said. "It’s a great experience and Spain is a wonderful country. I had fun living there. On the flip side, you realize and begin to appreciate what you have in the United States."
With a successful career in place, how did Barnes end up in the Army?
“Teaching in Spain was a positive experience, but I like to try new things,” he said.
One of those new things just happened to be joining the military. Barnes began to consider enlisting after he speaking with a friend who was in the Army.
“He told me about the things he did while serving and what a positive experience it was,” Barnes said.
Those conversations made him think about his life — and his desire to do something different.
“I always knew I wanted to serve my country in some capacity before I got too old, so I enlisted in 2010," Barnes said. "I was 30 when I went to the recruiter."
Barnes is now a food service specialist for the 509th.
“I sometimes get to the dining facility at 3 a.m. to help cook food, get it ready for transport and put it on a truck because everyone needs to eat at 6 a.m. before they head out to the range," he said. "Getting up that early isn’t fun, but serving people and having them enjoy what I’ve done gives me a sense of accomplishment. It makes getting up in the middle of the night worth it."
He also gets to participate in airborne operations.
“I love it," Barnes said. "I’ve learned a lot about being a paratrooper since I’ve been here. That’s my favorite part of the Army — being airborne. There’s no room for thinking twice about what you’re doing. It’s really exciting."
Though Barnes has chosen to serve his country, he still manages to continue his scholarly achievements by speaking at academic conventions, most recently at the University of Texas, Austin, Feb. 3. His topic was “Alternative Medicine within Latin American Countries and their application in American society today.” He is also scheduled to speak on Feb. 29 at Tulane University at the Global Gulf Graduate Student Conference. He plans to present a paper on the Baroque culture in Spain and Latin America.
Topic ideas come from projects that he has been working on for years.
Page 2 of 3 - “I have many different interests within academics,” he said.
Barnes actively searches for academic events.
“There’s a website that lists academic conferences all over the world," he said. "I look through that every couple of weeks and if there is something in the area and I can manipulate some of my work to fit in with their theme, then I send a topic proposal to them. Sometimes it works, because the topic is right up their alley, and sometimes it doesn’t. I just try to come up with interesting subjects to make things fit into what they are looking for."
But why bother when the Army is a full time career?
“Once you master a language, you have to continue to use it to maintain it," Barnes said. "I’m also making contacts and networking at these conferences to keep possibilities and opportunities open for what I may do once I get out of the Army."
Barnes said that one of the things he’s learned in the Army is that if you stay productive, keep yourself busy and set goals for yourself, you are going to have a positive experiences.
Barnes enjoys his military occupational specialty, but at some point might like to merge his service with his communication skills.
“I’d like to use my ability to speak Spanish in the military, but I don’t know how I would in my current MOS," he said. "I’ll reenlist in March and see what’s available to me. I’d really like to try being a linguist or involved in civil affairs, something along those lines."
Barnes added that he couldn’t pursue his occasional forays into academic work without the full support of his platoon leaders and battalion chain of command.
“Everybody has encouraged me," he said. "I hope that I may be setting a good example for young soldiers to pursue what interests them."
Capt. Albert Bryant, commander, HHC, 1st Bn (Abn), 509th Inf Reg, and Barnes’ commander, said when Geronimo was given the title “The best opposing force in the world” it was because of the efforts and talents of paratroopers such as Barnes.
“When a specialist can stand in front of an auditorium full of accomplished scholars at the University of Texas, the 509th has a reason to smile," Bryant said. "As a member of an elite OPFOR unit, a paratrooper and accomplishing daily training for personal goals such as the Army Ranger Tab, Barnes has not forgotten the importance of both academic growth and his duty as an ambassador of the United States Army. By speaking at such a large event he has shattered many of the negative stereotypes associated with Army life in regards to civilian education. We are extremely proud of him. Since word has spread about his academic accomplishment, I have seen the total number of applications for tuition assistance amongst the regiment increase by more than 70 percent. Barnes is the poster soldier for the 509th (Abn). We groom intelligent, self-driven, physically fit paratroopers that understand both balance and commitment to their mission and personal lives. Barnes is the paratrooper every commander dreams of having in his or her company."
Page 3 of 3 - Barnes said he is pleased with the turns his life has taken.
“It’s working out to be a great experience,” he said.